Thursday, 13 June 2013

File Folder Games for Middle Grade Students

Maybe it's because my initial teacher training focused on the primary grades, but when I decided it was time to start making supplies for my future classroom, file folder games quickly came to mind.

Doing a quick Google search showed me that few, if any, teachers are using this concept with older students. I'm not sure why this might be, but I have decided I will not let it stop me in my quest for useful and independent activities students can work with once their classroom work is complete.

Why would I use these with older students?

  1. Portability It is likely that I will work as an occasional teacher for a while, so portability is mandatory. Even within a single school, there is a chance I would need to move from classroom to classroom depending on the school's schedule, so portability is always a desired feature.
  2. Enrichment Opportunities No student wants to be faced with "more of the same" or be forced to help other students when their work is complete. Providing recreational math games in one way to help students extend concepts without extra drill and encourages them to think strategically.
  3. Thriftiness The cost of purchasing plastic commercial versions of some of these games would be prohibitive. The bulk of the games would also make them cumbersome to carry and difficult to store. I can make similar versions of these that cost less, take up less space, and are laminated to improve durability. A missing piece can be easily reprinted.
  4. Versatility Laminated surfaces lend themselves well to dry-erase markers (or even crayons that can be wiped off in a pinch). This means games can be adapted to suit current needs, and it also means that popular paper-and-pencil games can be played with less paper waste involved.
  5. Novelty If I can't find them online, chances are good that most middle grade kids aren't used to seeing file folder games as part of their math instruction.
  6. Play Value Introducing new concepts through play can help students develop a deeper understanding of the underlying concepts. Playing a code-breaking game can help introduce the concept of combinations and permutations, for example. Probability, geometry, co-ordinates etc. can also be introduced through game play. While the folders lend themselves well to after-work activities, they can also be used to introduce concepts to the entire group. When the focus moves away from computation and "right answers only" into the underlying concepts and strategies, many students feel less threatened with the introduction of new concepts. As we would not forbid a toddler to use a word he or she could not yet write or spell, we can encourage students to develop meaning and concept through games and exploration before demanding computational accuracy.

The games I will be making include many from my math pages here: and here: These include classics such as Dots, Hex, Black, Birdcage and several others. What is wonderful about these kinds of games is that most of them are traditional and quite old, and as such, remain in the public domain.
If you wish to use any of the boards I have drawn specifically for my site, you may, with the caveat that these are for personal use, which includes homeschooling for a single family, use for a single classroom, or recreational use at home. Many hours of work go into the development of the resources I share. If you wish to make these and sell them or otherwise distribute them, you will need to contact me with the details so we can come to an arrangement.
Once I have completed the math games, I will likely print out some Madlibs from my print page as well, primarily for ESL students, but also available to all students upon completion of the main classroom activities.

As I have completed the basic games and ensured that the layout works, I will share those printable boards and rules on the print page as well.

This is the process I use:

  1. Determine the game to be used and divide it into three main sections: the rules, the board, and any playing pieces.
  2. Create separate files for each section and print these out. Since the games are aimed older, they are less clip-art oriented and quite minimalist, but clip art and other graphic features can be added as desired.
  3. Create a cover piece that included the title of the game and the number of players required.
  4. Print all of these out on regular printer paper.
  5. Trim the printouts as needed.
  6. Paste the board to the inside of the folder. Larger boards must not bridge the folded area as they may make the folder too bulky to fold. Paste the cover on the front and the rules either on the inside left of the folder, or on the back for larger boards.Laminate the folder and playing pieces separately.
  7. To make a pocket that is both laminated but which you can open up, see this excellent blog post I found that has clear instructions complete with pictures
  8. You can also paste the pocket right onto the folder before laminating if you do not need to be able to close a flap. This eliminates the need to use velcro to attach it later. If you want the best of both worlds--a pocket that has a flap you can close and is sealed onto the board with the lamination rather than velcro, try lining up the pocket at the edge of the folder so the flap extends beyond the edge. It can then be folded at the edge of the folder. It may be a little bulky, but the pocket will not be easily lost.

Gardening with Young Children

If you are the kind of person who cherishes a "perfect lawn" and prefers manicured flower beds and neatly trimmed hedges, this post is not for you.

Still with me? Good. Let's get started.

Full disclosure: I have brown thumb. I have been known to kill cacti and other "indestructible plants" under my care. Houseplants in particular cringe when they see me coming.

However, I have found over the years that there is a much better gardener than myself, one with eons more experience than I: nature.

It is important to me to encourage children to explore nature, and a large part of that exploration revolves around plant growth.

Some of my favourite childhood memories involve puttering around gardens. I used to love worms (still do, actually) and our retired neighbour used to invite me over to his vegetable garden where we'd sit and eat green beans together right off the vine. It was our guilty little secret, and I admit that I still prefer to eat beans this way. He also showed me how food scraps can make the soil richer long before composting became a mainstream idea for city dwellers. I remember the joy of seeing a butternut squash seed sprout and grow, even though I had no idea what squash even tasted like. I remember watching Hodge-Podge-Lodge and learning that dandelions are edible. Digging one up to try it and the disappointment that the root tasted like bitter onions.

The word "gardening" means different things to different people; some see it as controlling nature using whatever means necessary to ensure that their ideal is not compromised.

I see it as helping, observing and connecting with nature. OK, well, perhaps not the rabbits who keep raiding my garden, but I digress...

With my famous brown thumb though, I was pretty nervous about the whole idea of introducing gardening to kids.

There was the time many moons ago when I volunteered in a classroom and we tried sprouting beans, in a heatwave, and left them in a school over the weekend. Word of advice: don't try this yourself! Now I know to do this earlier in the season and take them home to rinse regularly in cold water. Lesson learned.

Some other activities I've tried with more success:

Nature's Garden 

Before starting this project, discuss/consider what is meant by the term "weed". Should that be used to describe native plants? Invasive plants? Plants not specifically intended for a particular spot?

Clear out a small area (at least .5 square metres) of bare soil in your garden, and mark it out so you can easily find it again. Now just let it be. Do not add any chemicals, fertilizers or even compost. Do not rake, hoe or disturb the soil. Do not water the area. The point of this project is to let nature do its thing.

Take regular observations. What kids of plants appear? Are they native plants, invasive plants, non-invasive foreign plants, or a mixture? Which ones seem to grow best here? What wildlife seems to be attracted to the area, and how does this compare with the surrounding area?

Consider keeping this area wild for several years, and observe changes that happen over time.

In doing this, we have been the beneficiaries of raspberries and grapes, several maple trees, a beech tree and some wildflowers. Less welcome were two invasive bushes as well as some garlic mustard that we ultimately removed for ecological reasons.

Compost Garden

When my kids observed that the vegetables that grew from the kitchen compost we put in the garden grew better than some of the seeds we had planted (brown thumb again), the observation led us to experiment further with the concept.
Clear a patch of soil and add some garden compost to it (your own compost will do better than municipal or commercial types because those tend to generate higher temperatures that cook the seeds). Water it as needed, being sure not to over-water it. Practice identifying the different vegetables and fruits that grow there.

Some food plants do better with acidic soil, such as blueberries. Some vegetables won't grow near black walnut trees. Tomatoes need calcium in the soil or they will rot near the flower. Planting beans and tomatoes together is a good idea, but planting broccoli near tomatoes is not. Zucchini squash will grow incredibly fast once the fruits start out. These are all things we have learned in part from our experiments and in part from helpful friends who run various CSA farms.

Plant a Fort
Here are two ways to plant a play fort.

1.  Build a base structure, such as  a large tripod from long garden stakes. Plant viny plants such as beans, peas, grape vines etc. on either side of the base of each stake. For larger tripods, you may wish to tie garden twine around the outside for extra plant support. As the vines grow, train them upwards and around the stakes and twine. Don't forget to leave space for a door.
Children can harvest food from the vines as they play inside their fort.

2. For a sunflower or corn stalk fort, you won't need to use garden stakes. Simply plant the seed in where you wish to have walls. Leave a little less than the recommended distance between the plantings, except where you wish to have your door. With less space the plants may not produce quite as much, but the walls will be thicker and more private.

To keep birds and rodents from eating your newly planted seed, plant the seed deep (a little past your second knuckle deep). We've also tried using blood and bone meal to try and discourage wildlife from eating the seed with mixed results.

CD Case Bean Sprouts:

I will be honest here, I have not yet tried this particular activity.
I am not sure where I have seen this recently, but it is an experiment I would like to try. When I went searching for it again, I found this blog post that describes it well

What I like about this is that the students get to see the entire plant grow and can label the parts and/or growth with dates right on the case. I suspect these will grow better than the paper towel or freezer bag methods most of us remember from our own days as students.

Collecting Seeds

Seed collection is quite a science, but we have managed some success with this while keeping it simple. We have planted peppers, tomatoes, cantaloupe and pumpkins from seed we have saved. We've also had success with marigolds, which are good to grow with your veggies as their scent helps cover the smell of vegetables and reduces their appeal to wildlife.

For tomatoes, we let the seeds age in rotting tomatoes until they have dried out. Once they are dry, we pack them in paper bags for the following spring. I read somewhere (?) that this makes them less vulnerable to disease, and since the seed we've planted this way has done well, there may be something to this claim.

All other seeds we collect and let air dry, package in paper and wait until the following spring. Marigolds are especially easy; just wait until the flowers die and dry out and gently tug to seeds away from the plant.

I hope that these activities help other "brown-thumbed" people gain the courage to explore gardening with children.